Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Making our Point

Through the ups and downs of our 35 years here, the essential character of this special area of Winnipeg persists

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Phil Hossack / Winnipeg Free Press

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Phil Hossack / Winnipeg Free Press

We moved into North Point Douglas in 1979. We liked the area because of the diversity of population, its proximity to downtown and closeness to the schools in which we taught.

The spring after moving into our rented row house, we dug a garden in the backyard and began learning from our Ukrainian neighbours, vigorous seniors who were master gardeners.

After renting for several years, we purchased part of a multi-family building a few blocks away and continue to live there co-operatively with friends. This street featured a whole new population of old folks who shared their seeds, garlic and stories of times gone by.

In the nearly 35 years we have spent in this neighbourhood, we have witnessed many changes, but the essential character of North Point Douglas persists.

Being a low-income part of Winnipeg, the area is a receptacle for folks seeking affordable housing and a vibrant community. We are right across the tracks from the Aboriginal Centre in the old Canadian Pacific station, close to Norquay School (one of the oldest public schools in Winnipeg), the Norquay Community Centre and the North Point Douglas Women's Centre, a drop-in place where one can access laundry facilities, coffee, computers, company and counselling. Ross House, Western Canada's original post office, was moved into Joe Zuken Park and now exists as a museum and gathering place for community clean-ups and other activities.

A monthly newsletter helps keep residents aware of happenings in the neighbourhood. Recently, a few of us started an informal literacy program to assist those who may wish to upgrade their skills in reading, writing and mathematics.

Being situated on a point surrounded on three sides by the Red River gives this area a surprisingly intimate, small-town atmosphere. There are parks both large and small and a lot of riverbank made for rambling. The new Disraeli Bridge, with its extensive landscaping, has added beauty and also access to the rest of the city. But 'the Point' is an ideal place for people who don't want to own a car as there are several transit routes with frequent buses on the Disraeli, Euclid Avenue and Main Street.

Point Douglas is full of history. A plaque in Zuken Park and the Ross House Museum honour the Selkirk Settlers and other pioneers. Of course, the neighbourhood has had its ups and downs. In the 1980s, we had our share of drug traffic, prostitution and corner stores selling sniff products.

In earlier years, North Point Douglas had housed Winnipeg's main red-light district in several houses patronized by some of Winnipeg's leading citizens. Being close to the railroad tracks led to scrap-metal yards, one of which still thrives as a recycling centre for aluminium cans, old household appliances and cast-off automobile parts.

I (Barry) became chairman of the Point Douglas Residents Committee (PDRC) in the 1980s and embarked on restoring Barber House, the oldest continuously lived-in house in Winnipeg. E.L. Barber built the house in 1862, having floated oak logs on the Red River to make the walls. The building, with its elaborate balcony, sits slightly askew to Euclid Avenue, since Barber's wife wished to be able to look across to her father's house near Old Fort Douglas.

After sitting vacant for a number of years, Barber House needed considerable work. The structure was restored almost back to its original condition when a young person threw in some gasoline and a match, causing a fire that destroyed the interior. The thick log walls remained standing, although blackened by the fire. They survived an even more serious arson in 2010.

This dire event turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as it was the catalyst for neighbourhood organizations, government and people committed to preserving our city's history to work together to make Barber House rise again. Just over a year after the second arson, the beautifully restored old house was dedicated as a community hub connected to a state-of-the-art child care centre that had been constructed a few years earlier on the original Barber property.

Like many residents, we take pleasure in dropping by the old house to share a cup of coffee courtesy of the North Point Douglas Seniors Association, attend a concert featuring local talent, or enjoy the beauty of the garden boxes and perennial beds in the yard. The rebirth of old Barber House has become a symbol for the little neighbourhood that just won't give up.

We see signs of hope and good energy all over the place in North Point Douglas. On our street alone, many, many homes have been renewed over the past decade. One couple acquired a derelict former rooming house for $1 and worked to turn it into a beautiful home and artist's studio.

Another couple purchased a long-vacant lot across from us and built, mostly with their own labour, their dream home. They are here to stay -- the house has a small elevator in case they can't do stairs in a few decades. Even before they moved in, they were inspiring the rest of us with their energy and participation in community events and organizations. The house next door to ours was vacant and derelict for nearly 10 years before being bought and renovated by a man who is an exemplary landlord and owns several properties in the neighbourhood. Instead of looking out on peeling paint, boarded windows and a yard full of burdock, we can enjoy our young neighbours who have pulled the weeds and made a garden.

Of course, life here isn't idyllic. We continue to experience the same problems as other North End inner-city neighbourhoods. Although many different types of people live here, North Point Douglas statistically reflects low levels of employment, literacy and income. Unsavoury people are around, and vigilant citizens report on drug and party houses nearby.

Thanks to the dedication of a few visionary folks, we have an innovative system that encourages residents to be the eyes and ears on their block and report any and all problems before the situation gets out of control. Everything from abandoned furniture on boulevards to drug dealing in the park gets phoned or emailed in to this central system.

The dedicated volunteers who work the computer and phone have been incredibly effective in forming relationships with the authorities and getting action on complaints. Most sellers of drugs have moved out, as landlords and neighbours keep watch on the area. City police are pleased with the assistance of citizens in resolving issues related to crime and safety.

Hopefully we have given you a glimpse into our historic, vibrant neighbourhood. Take a look at North Point Douglas and other inner city neighbourhoods for what they have to offer. Visit one of our historic buildings on a Doors Open Winnipeg weekend or take a walking tour offered by Ross House Museum or Jane's Walk. You will discover a hidden treasure in the middle of the city.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 20, 2014 A4

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